Do I Need Physical Therapy for Tennis Elbow?

Even if the only racquet you’ve ever swung is at a garage sale, you could still have tennis elbow. It means you have swollen tendons in your arm, giving you pain in your outer elbow, forearm, and wrist.

It’s common in people who play sports such as tennis and squash, but most people get it from other activities where you often have to grip and twist, such as turning a screwdriver.

Often, it gets better on its own with self-care such as rest, ice, and pain medicine. If that doesn’t work though, your doctor may suggest physical therapy.

Why Physical Therapy?

The goal is to improve the strength and flexibility of your forearm muscles so you won’t be bothered with tennis elbow again. Your physical therapist may also teach you ways to change your tennis stroke or other activity that is causing your elbow troubles.

Physical therapy can also help improve blood flow to the tendons, which don’t get the same level of blood and oxygen supply as muscles normally receive.

Exercises that improve blood flow will improve healing, too.

Pain Relief

Your therapist will start with pain relief, then show you exercises that stretch and strengthen your muscles.

He will try to ease the pain and help your body heal with things such as:

You’ll also learn tips on how to rest your elbow and take the strain out of everyday activities.

Exercises

Once the pain eases, you’ll move onto exercises. How long it takes to get better depends on the severity of your symptoms. It could take up to 8 weeks or even longer to see results.

This isn’t a “no pain, no gain” exercise situation. If you’re hurting, stop. Pushing through it only makes it worse.

With the exercises below, the number of reps and how often to do them is just a guideline. Follow your therapist’s advice and program. And listen to your body. If 10 reps hurt, start with five. If doing them every day feels like a strain, try every other day and work your way up.

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To give you an idea of what physical therapy might involve, here are some of the general exercises:

Finger stretch:

  • Touch your fingers to your thumb and put a rubber band around them, including your thumb.
  • Slowly open your thumb and fingers all the way, then close them.
  • Repeat up to 25 times.

Do this stretch up to three times a day. If it gets too easy, try two rubber bands.

Ball squeeze:

  • Hold a tennis ball or soft rubber ball in your hand.
  • Squeeze and release up to 25 times.

Do this stretch up to three times a day. If it causes you pain, use a softer object, like a sponge or balled-up socks.

Wrist flexor stretch:

  • Hold your arm straight out so your elbow isn’t bent and your palm faces up.
  • Use your other hand to hold the fingers of your outstretched hand and bend it. back toward your body until you can feel it in your inner forearm.
  • Hold for 15 seconds.
  • Repeat three to five times.

Do this two or three times a day. You can hold it for up to 30 seconds and work your way up to repeat five to 10 times instead of three to five.

Wrist extensor stretch:

This is just like the last stretch, but your palm faces down instead of up:

  • Hold your arm straight out so your elbow isn’t bent and your palm faces down.
  • Use your other hand to hold the fingers of your outstretched hand and bend it back toward your body until you can feel it in your outer forearm.
  • Hold for 15 seconds.
  • Repeat three to five times.

Do this two or three times a day. You can hold it for up to 30 seconds and work your way up to repeat five to 10 times instead of three to five.

Wrist turn:

  • Bend your elbow at a right angle by your side so it forms an L.
  • Hold your hand out palm up.
  • Gently turn your wrist so your palm faces down.
  • Hold for 15 seconds.
  • Repeat three to five times.

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Do this two or three times a day. You can hold it for up to 30 seconds and work your way up to repeat 5 to 10 times instead of three to five.

Forearm strengthening:

  • Grab a 1-pound dumbbell -- or a tool like a hammer or wrench -- and take a seat.
  • Support your forearm on your thigh or the edge of a table so that your wrist. hangs over the edge.
  • Grasp the bottom of the dumbbell -- not the middle, as usual.
  • Slowly turn your hand so your palm faces up. Make sure to only move your forearm, not your elbow.
  • Slowly turn your palm to the ground.
  • Repeat 10 times.

Do this one or two times a day, more if you’re up to it. You can also work your way up to repeat 20 times instead of 10.

After Your Program Is Over

Once your elbow is pain-free and your backhand is better than ever, you should continue to keep your muscles strong and flexible.

That’s because everyday activities don’t keep your muscles as strong and flexible as they should be to avoid sports injuries.

Talk to your therapist or doctor about the best ways to continue keeping your elbow working at its best.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on December 28, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Orth Info: “Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis).”

Mayo Clinic: “Tennis Elbow.”

Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School: “What to Do About Tennis Elbow.”

Virginia Sportsmedicine Institute: “Elbow pain.”

Houston Methodist: “Lateral Epicondylitis (Tennis Elbow).”

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: “Tennis Elbow and Golfer’s Elbow.”

Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma: “Tennis Elbow: Lateral and Medial Epicondylitis.”

Massachusetts General Hospital: “Tennis Elbow (Lateral Epicondylitis).”

Arthritis Research UK: “Exercises to Manage Tennis Elbow.”

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